Monica Lee is the author of four memoirs/autobiographical fiction books: her latest is Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul. Also available: Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of "Like" in 1982, How to Look Hot & Feel Amazing in Your 40s: The 21-Day Age-Defying Diet, Exercise & Everything Makeover Plan and The Percussionist's Wife.
In honor of Earth Day today, I’m sharing images of beauty taken over the past four years in my yard, specifically the front garden.
I can take no credit for this flower garden. It was originally planted by members of the congregation who used to attend church in what is now our home. It’s now tended by my husband, our hired man and my husband’s uncle when he pays us a visit.
But tulips aren’t the other perennial growing in this garden.
Happy Earth Day. Save the earth, and the earth will save you.
Many days, the best moment is the one I slip into bed next to my sweetheart.
I’m in bed at least eight hours a night, so I’ve invested in a good experience: the perfect mattress, luxury sheets and pillows designed for my sleeping style (side and back). When I finally crawl into bed, I relish in the comfort.
If you’re spring cleaning, sprucing up your bed should be on your to-do list. Begin by stripping the bed and washing every last linen: mattress pad, sheets, pillowcases, blankets and throws. If you have the sort of mattress that should be flipped and turned, do it now.
If you’re a Southerner, you might iron those sheets before returning them to use. A couple of years ago as I was flipping through an issue of Southern Living, I ran across tips for making the perfect bed and one of them was “Iron the sheets. Whether you send them out to be pressed or do it yourself with plenty of starch, ironed sheets add a polished touch.”
Send them out to be pressed?! When did Southerners start living on another planet? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Southerners for knowing how to make fried chicken and a mean barbecue, but this is where we practical Midwesterners draw line between us and those slow-talking Southerners with the impeccable hospitality. I might be exaggerating, but Minnesotans don’t write letters to lifestyle magazines asking how to fold fitted sheets. We wad them up and stuff them in the linen closet and call it good. (Phoebe Howard, the southern etiquette master answering the magazine’s plaintive letters at the time, added that she likes Washed Cotton Linen Water. What?! Tide. Tide is good. What is linen water?)
For me, the “polished touch” on the bed is clean sheets, not ironed ones. But you do you. If ironing is your jam, have at it.
When you’re ready to reassemble your nest, one of my secrets for transforming a bed into a sanctuary is two top sheets. This adds a lot more value than a good ironing, in my opinion. A second top sheet is a cheap and easy way to improve your sleeping environment.
A representative for Westin Hotels & Resorts suggested this fix in an issue of O Magazine that I read seven years ago, and at first, I was skeptical. But I swear by it now. Lo and behold, a second sheet adds a bit of luxury, a little comforting weight and greater temperature control (which is paramount if you’re menopausal).
Small things matter as evidenced by daily flossing and freshly ground pepper, also both worth the trouble.
I share one warning, however: take care when climbing into bed, or you might find yourself between top sheets. If your sleeping partner is lying between the correct layers, you won’t get the benefit of skin-to-skin contact (but your partner might get a giggle at your expense).
Earlier this week on laundry day, I drafted my father into helping make my bed, and he said he liked the idea enough to try two top sheets, too (see, you can teach an old dog new tricks). Try it. You might like it, too.
When we renovated the old Methodist church that is now our home, we frequently dove into dumpsters to unearth the discarded gems.
A table on the roadside? Turn around! Let’s look!
A king-sized headboard on the curb? Hey, we have room in the back of the truck for that!
Oddly shaped bench painted with odd colors? It definitely has possibilities, load it up!
The grill sits on the table outside on the patio, the headboard was repainted and will be used in the basement when we renovate that portion of the church at some point, and the bench is still in the garage, awaiting reincarnation.
Trash picking fits our goal to recycle, reuse and repurpose whenever possible, one of the 10 Commandments of design we created in the church.
This gem, we picked from the dirt-floor basement of house we rented while renovating the church (permission granted by the property manager). The mirror’s frame was blond wood, and the lines were simply too modern (or possibly, too reminiscent of 1990) to hang it in the church. Instead, we hauled it to Texas. I painted it the same color as we painted the trim inside our condo, and now it reflects light in our entryway.
My husband still peruses dumpsters as he passes them, and he found another mirror that may or may not be transported north.
It’s a mirror built into a tree stump. I think. At first glance, it looks like frame is made of antlers, but no, that’s solid wood, polished and stained. It’s quite weird. Weird can be undesirable or fantastic. It poses the question of one man’s trash/treasure.
Two of the branches (stumps? points?) are cut and flattened, like they are shelves. But shelves for what? Figurines? Tiny vases?
Though it was found in a dumpster near our Texas condo, the antler vibes lead me to believe it is better suited for Wisconsin. Or possibly a dumpster in either state.
What do you think? Ugly? Or unique? If it’s unique, would you paint it? Replace the mirror with a picture (of what?)? What would you put on the shelves?
Our little Church Sweet Home is just another in a long line of church conversions. Churches across America (and the world) are losing membership and going on the market, so the opportunities to renovate an old church into a new home abound.
As I admit in my memoir about our church renovation project, Pinterest inspired me:
A quick look through the Pinterest website reveals some spectacular transformations, the sort of metamorphosis that inspired me. But you’ll also find some horrors of awkwardly chopped-up spaces, dark rooms, strange window configurations and thoughtless appropriation of church symbols—like an altar reused as a bar. Ugh.
Search “converted churches” or “church conversions” and you’ll find enough transformative pins to distract you for hours.
Google, of course, will serve up a heaping platter of converted churches, too:
Spent some time on Zoom lately? Who hasn’t? This video communication platform is the hot go-to for socially distanced meetings and work-from-home gatherings.
Even some of my leisure time recently has been spent on Zoom. I’ve attended book club discussions and hosted a family reunion or two on Zoom in the these past pandemic months.
Want to put your best face forward? You can “Touch Up My Appearance” and smooth out your skin tone with the touch of a button.
If you really want to be cool on Zoom, you can look like a pro by getting rid of the piles of books and dirty clothes in your workspace and customizing your background. (Who really wants to neaten up a space when you can utilize technology?)
And better yet? How about upgrading your chaos to a sanctuary? A Church Sweet Home sanctuary?
I’m sharing three images you can use to customize your Zoom background and feel like you’ve upgraded your home zone without all the headache of buying an old church and renovating it.
Zoom Background 1: Kitchen
Zoom Background 2: Entryway
(This one’s my favorite.)
Zoom Background 3: Balcony
Begin by clicking on the image, then right-clicking to find the option to “save image as” and saving it to your desktop (or wherever you store images).
Now log into Zoom and go to Settings, click on “Manage Virtual Background” and choose the image you’ve saved on your desktop. If you’re already in the meeting, click in the upper left corner, then click on the gear symbol, then “Background and Filters.” You might have to click the “Mirror my video” box to get the right orientation on the image. Alternatively, you can change your virtual background during the call by selecting the up arrow (^) next to the stop video button and clicking on the option that says “Choose Virtual Background.”
(Having trouble getting your background to work? Troubleshoot with Google. You’re a smart reader, I know you’ll figure it out.)
If anyone asks about your background, tell them you’re personal friends with the woman who renovated a church. Just another opportunity to name drop your celebrity friends, friend.
Normally, when I think of minimalism, I think of angular lines and chrome, which is probably neither a complete nor fair definition. Cozy would not have been the first adjective I would use.
Yet, when the world turns topsy-turvy as it has in the past year, people begin to think differently about what makes a cozy home. In COVID-19 polluted world, the idea of living in a space that’s free of excess—one that fosters a sense of calm—has become more appealing to homeowners.
One of the hallmarks of minimalist home design is a monochromic color scheme, and even though I’m not a fan of minimalism (at least in home design), I can wholeheartedly endorse a monochromatic color scheme.
It’s one way to reduce visual clutter, Kelle Dame of Kelle Dame Interiors in Kenosha told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently. Lowering the color contrast can result in a clean look as opposed to contrast which creates energy, tension and stimulation.
I’ve chosen paint colors for two homes in the past three years and went with monochromatic colors in both, and I can attest to the calming nature of a clean look.
In every other house I’d owned, I (or my husband) painted every room a different color mostly because that’s what everyone does, especially in cardboard box-type houses when paint color was usually the most distinctive design feature of the room. But in the chome, I had all kinds of other distinctive features vying for attention—etched windows, high ceilings, a dramatic spiral stairway and original wood floors. I decided I didn’t need a bunch of different paint colors muddying up the canvas. I had every room painted in the same colors to create a cohesive backdrop to everything else going on.
For the walls, I chose a light gray inspired by Behr’s Evening White but mixed by Sherwin-Williams. It makes me happy just walking through the rooms any time of day.
The trim, a white inspired by Behr’s Bleached Linen, pops against the gray.
And the wainscoting, a tan inspired by Behr’s Arid Landscape, brings warmth to the scene (and also is reminiscent of the color it was originally painted).
Most of the ceilings in the church are painted in Behr’s Sleek White in eggshell.
More recently, we repainted our condo in Texas.
After painting the entire church in one color scheme, I knew I would do that again in this condo. I decided to switch the dark and light of the original condo paint job by painting the thick, beautiful trim a darker color than the walls. This had the added benefit of saving money on the paint job because we had the ceilings painted the same light color as the walls.
I adore the is-it-gray?-is-it-green? vibe of the trim color, called Sensible Hue from Sherwin-Williams Nurturer collection. It calls attention to the most interesting architectural elements of the room—the doors and windows. And the windows become beautiful frames for the view of the lake.
A darker color on the wainscoting is Illusive Green.
The walls and ceilings were painted in Oyster White.
As a lake home, the condo needed a calm and watery theme (rather than Spanish Revival or whatever was going on before). These paint colors coordinate with the blues and greens of the furniture and accessories we invested in.
How to amp up the coziness value? When monochromatic colors are used, such as whites, creams and other neutral colors, texture will boost coziness, that Kenosha designer Kelle Dame says.
I did that in both homes with jute rugs, baskets, fuzzy throws and textured pillows.
An added benefit of going monochromatic throughout an entire home is that it eliminates constant decision making. Once you decide on a scheme, every room is the same. Easy-peasy. And a homeowner needs to save only a few cans of paint in the basement or utility closet for touch-ups.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t admire the paint job in our home. Someday, I expect I’ll go in a completely different direction, but for right now, monochromatic gives me peace and comfort.
As a church for more than a century, the building that is now my home served its community in many ways.
At its most robust and active in the mid 20th century, the congregation undoubtedly supported numerous charities with service and alms. It was in the 1940s when the church renovated the entryway and interior to reorient the altar, and I’m guessing if the membership had enough resources to do so, they had enough to share, too. The church was renown for its Carolina barbecue dinners and its women’s group festivals that raised funds through the sales of baked goods and handmade items. And near the end of its life as a worship space, a food pantry was founded there and operated in the basement; we found the raised gardens in the back yard where fresh produce was grown to give away.
I consider churches to be awesome in the role of NGOs—that is, non-governmental organizations working toward benefiting society and human welfare. (Raising funds to renovate a religious building’s entryway is not the work of an NGO, but feeding the hungry or collecting clothing for the poor is.) When you pay the government (i.e., taxes) to perform such work, sometimes you see tangible results and sometimes you don’t, but when you contribute to a local charity through a church or operated by it, you often experience the results first-hand. It’s satisfying and meaningful in a way paying income taxes is not.
Which brings me to Family24, Inc. The church I belong to (not the one I live in) is raising funds for Family24 this month, and if you live in the village, you have the opportunity to fill your own belly while helping others. The local First Congregational United Church of Christ is offering a Souper Lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, February 6, 2021. You can drive-through and pick up a meal of two hot and packaged-to-go soups (chili and potato soup) plus a roll and cookie. Cost? It’s up to you: the church is collecting a freewill offering to support Family24’s mission trip.
Family24 is a mission-minded organization partnering with Hogar de Vida in San Andres Sajcabaja, Guatemala to provide nutrition and care for the children living there. Family24 also supports families in our local community.
Family24’s tagline is Faith, Family, Farming & Food in Wisconsin and around the world. I love that the group is doing a mission trip to Guatemala because my father has been there twice with Rotary International to construct buildings in isolated communities. You can follow Family24‘s work on Facebook.
Everything about this is good! Hot soup on a cold day. Freewill offering—give what you feel called to give. Help a local charity while also helping internationally. If you live nearby, consider buying your lunch to help others.
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In other news, Church Sweet Home: A Renovation to Warm the Soul was named a 2020 Finalist this week in the Indies Today 2020 Awards.
Based in part on this blog, Church Sweet Home is the true story of how my husband I transformed a 126-year-old Methodist church into our dream home. It came out in May.
Full disclosure: I am not an NGO and most of the proceeds from the sale of my book go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble. But I am an independent author, and Indies Today is a resource for other authors like me. Readers can find some gems there among the reviews of self-published books. The contest’s overall winner, One Hit Away: A Memoir of Recovery by Jordan P. Barnes was named 2020 Best Book of the Year. That debut memoir is described as a “gripping, startling account of heroin addiction, compassion and ultimately, of salvation.”
Indies Today also named Genre Award Winners in 18 categories and more than 80 other Finalists. Show an independent author some love and check them out.
Nothing says summer like green grass. In the middle of winter when the white stuff covers the northern landscape, a little bit of greenery, even if it’s only a memory, is good for the soul.
The grass in most yards is like a military crewcut—neat and rather rigid in profile when it’s properly cared for. At Church Sweet Home, caring for the grass falls to my husband who enjoys driving a zero-turn riding lawnmower around to whack the shoots of grass into submission.
But my favorite grasses in our yard (and anywhere for that matter) are the ornamental grasses which come in a variety of greens and other hues, including purple and dark brown, and many have tufts, blooms and seedheads. Ornamental grasses are kind of like ’80s hair: big, wild and eye-catching. Marvel in their ostentatious beauty.
We began decorating the yard with fancy grass donated by a benefactor (and fan of this blog) who had an abundance in her own yard. Ornamental grasses are like hostas in that way: easy to divide and share.
Tyler planted this gift in a clump just off our patio. In late summer, beautiful pink seedheads decorate the tops. When the sun catches them, it’s like jewelry.
Last summer, Uncle Al gifted us with some more ornamental grass, this type with variegated leaves. Some of it, we planted outside the patio, to enhance a corner of the church.
More of these variegated variety, Uncle Al planted for us on another corner of the property. Here it camouflages some long forgotten and no longer useful utility pole. Tyler says it belongs to AT&T, probably not the current amalgamation but something closer to American Telephone & Telegraph (ha, ha, the telegraph, how quaint).
Here’s a close-up of the variegation-—yellow and green stripes.
Ornamental grasses can add big statement to your landscaping. According to the Extension Service, ornamental grasses can be planted in the fall or spring, so maybe now’s the time to dream up where you might plant some in your yard so you, too, can marvel in their beauty.
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Today’s headline is a quote from Frederic Chopin, a Polish-born pianist and composer.
We’ve got a throw-back church sign today, drawn from one of last summer’s thoughtful messages. This one makes me smile because some people can’t their heads around the use of “her” as a pronoun for God. On the other hand, some people can’t get their heads around the use of “him” as a pronoun for God.
Maybe your God is male. I have no problem with that. But my God doesn’t have genitalia, so I guess that means I land in the “they” camp (despite the grammatical agreement issues that causes). He is male, She is female, they are both, they are neither. If I refer to God as “She” once in a while, well, that’s just a reminder that I don’t really know. I’m not omniscient. Which is sort of the point of this message: faith is trusting even when you don’t know what the heck is going on.
I also don’t really know much about the meaning of geraniums, which my husband thoughtfully planted in the church sign stand, except they are a pretty-in-pink reminder of the promise of things to come on a gray winter day. A quick Google search reveals geraniums mean pretty much anything. Friendship? Sure. Ingenuity? Yes. Stupidity or folly. Yup, that, too.
I trust that you will apply whatever meaning you need today.
Among the benefits of investing in an existing structure, as opposed to building a new one, is that you usually inherit mature trees on the property.
This was most definitely the case with our converted church in the center of town, a little village on the Wisconsin-Illinois border. We had a number of big, beautiful trees on the lot. We ended up removing a few of the elderly Chinese elms, but the rest of them just needed a little pruning and love.
The stars in our yard are the pine trees. Somebody in the congregation long ago planted a number of pine trees that grew to forty or fifty feet tall in the decades since that prescient decision. They tower over the church roof.
Immediately upon taking possession of the property three years ago, we had the lowest branches on the two pine trees closest to the building trimmed dramatically (it took me and our hired man hours to haul all those branches to the burn pile). Some of the branches were draped across the roof, and they had to go. But since that extreme haircut, the scars have healed. I can barely get my arms around half the trunk of the biggest pine tree, it’s so massive (and I have long arms!). I stare into those towering branches next to our patio when I am in savasana, the final resting pose at the end of almost every yoga practice–at least, when I’m lucky enough to do yoga outdoors (which is out of the question, even in Texas, this time of year). It’s supremely calming to listen to the wind in those branches, and contemplate how those branches were reaching skyward long before I was born. Depending on my luck and the tree’s, those branches might be writing poems on the sky long after I’m gone, too.
If the true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit, a quote alternately attributed to author Nelson Henderson or Elton Trueblood, my husband decided to repay those long-ago congregants by planting a new pine tree in our yard last fall.
After we cut down those Chinese elms on the property line, Tyler determined we needed a little more greenery between us and the neighbors. So this little spruce tree took up residence between two of the bigger pines just off the driveway. If we had been around for Christmas, I would have been tempted to hang lights on this tree, it was so perfectly Christmasy.
In my youth, I didn’t consider myself a nature lover, but the longer I enjoy the eternal newness that comes from sunrises, sunsets, plants and yes, trees, the more I appreciate it.
“Of all man’s works of art, a cathedral is greatest. A vast and majestic tree is greater than that.”